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1:1 with Dwight Mengel, Chief Transportation Planner at Tompkins County Department of Social Services

Publication Date: Sep 22, 2022

This is a transcript of a video interview with Dwight Mengel on May 16, 2022 in Chicago, IL at the Mobility Innovation Collaborative workshop. Find these videos on the Mobility Learning Center here


Tell us about yourself and your project. 

My name is Dwight Mengel. I am the Chief Transportation Planner of Tompkins County Department of Social Services. We received a Federal Transit Administration Integrated Mobility Innovation grant award of $820,000. We were very happy to receive that.


What inspired your project?

We have launched the development of a mobility-as-a-service project. It’s geared towards small urban and rural communities. We were very fortunate in our community of Ithaca, New York to have many mobility services, many shared-use services. 

We have the largest and oldest nonprofit carshare program in the state. Shared-use services enable a lot of creative thinking, and one of the creative impulses for what would become our mobility of service project was: “what if there was a way where people could have a monthly mobility budget?” But first, what we needed to do was to integrate our customer services because our customer services are being delivered by the individual providers, and that needs to be integrated. So our MaaS phase one project is devoted to customer service, and then phase two deals with money and transactions, as opposed to flipping the order or just dealing with the money and transactions and not having customer service.


What are your project goals? 

We have four goals. One is to create an organized, multimodal, customer service center. And we’ve done a lot of planning to go and do that. 

I must say that we really did not kick off our project until July 2021. The pandemic really impacted our community and our operators. I will just say this, when you’re working with nonprofits and small organizations, you find key people are doing multiple tasks. And so until July, we were really focused on the pandemic, recovering from the pandemic and applying for all of the federal money that was sent out to support us for that effort. So we have been, since that time, now we’re wrapping up the program planning and development work, and we are looking to start our pilot on October 1st.


How are you engaging with your end users?

Well, we have partnered with a community transportation needs assessment project, and that’s focused on equity, inclusion, looking to reach not only urban communities, but also rural. You have to come up with different strategies for doing that.


Tell us about your project partners and their role. 

I will just run down extremely quick, who is partnering with us. Public transit, the demand response services, Ithaca Carshare, our 211 information and referral, volunteer driver programs, Cornell University, Tompkins County, City of Ithaca, and also the out-of-county commuter bus services that bring people to work in our county. Our transit system has on-demand, rural pilots that they’ve been working on. They first started as a first mile, last mile, then the pandemic, and they had to recover and test out different pilots. They had an app that is used to dispatch riders to serve customers. Customers can use to reserve, but customers can also call. 

For our customer service project, it includes all of the information to provide assistance for people to deal with any of the transportation challenges that they have, that we can work with. We have also added into that mix our intercity bus services, since many people are looking to get access to and from the inner city bus. Frankly, we have about three times the number of people using the inner city bus than using the airport, so we should be having some support. So that’s one thing, is this multimodal customer service center. 

The next thing is the world’s simplest mobility app. It will enable people to contact online or by phone the customer service center by pushing one button. It would also enable users to arrange on their phone, all of the contact information, both online or by phone for any of the providers they want to aggregate, as their family of services that they use. 

And the third thing we have is really innovative. We will have a guaranteed ride program that basically will assist people when they have trip failures. So it’s not just to and from work, or anything else. If you’re on your bike and you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you have a flat tire, and you’re not prepared – you can join instantly, by the way, it’s very low cost – you can call up and somebody’s gonna come out and help you. 

If you are at a doctor’s office and your ride does not come to get you, the doctor’s office can call us up or you can call up, and you will be helped. The purpose is to replicate or mimic the marketing process that AAA has for roadside assistance. And frankly, when you look at AAA and their marketing, they lead off with marketing roadside assistance, and everything else they have is secondary. The first thing is roadside assistance. Can you have help when you need help? We’re doing that for all other modes of travel. 


How does the Shared-Use Mobility Center support your project and team?

SUMC has provided technical assistance for us, and in fact, I have a very short list – one of the reasons why I’m at the meeting today is to talk with SUMC about some things that we need some help with. So we appreciate the commitment and open-mindedness of SUMC, and we thank the FTA for making all this possible.